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Preparing the Ne(x)t Generation: Lessons learnt from Free/Libre Open Source

Software and their Communities

This article deals with lessons that can be learnt, in this regard, from the Free / Libre
Open and Source Software (FLOSS) communities. FLOSS communities, as best
practice examples of Open Participatory Learning Ecosystems (OPLE), illustrating
possible pathways for Higher Education (HE) to go beyond the limits of the current
Open Educational Resource (OER) move.

1. FLOSS Principles Constituting the ‘Net Generation’


The web as we know it today features a myriad of virtual communities whose members
voluntarily interact in a collaborative manner in order to share and create knowledge.
FLOSS communities (and Wikipedia) are probably the best-known examples of this
trend.
The FLOSS case is likely the most mature and developed learning ecosystems to be
found at the web. FLOSS communities succeed in providing and distributing in a
sustainable manner the knowledge necessary for the production of good quality
software. They apply a different development approach than proprietary software
producers, as software is built by a community of volunteers and companies, the latter
generating revenues from the provision of services rather than from selling software.
Knowledge is created collaboratively by experts and users, support is provided by user
to user support systems, and sustainability and quality are also assured through
community involvement.
Therefore, FLOSS communities gained attention for their community production and
support models and their way of knowledge creation, sharing, and learning
opportunities. FLOSS turned out to be an ecosystem that goes way beyond the pure
production of software. From the learner’s point of view, participating in this ecosystem
is not per se and not only dependent on good programming skills. Besides coding skills,
FLOSS also requires and provides expertise in patents law, license issues, management
skills, capacities to mobilise community members, or language skillsi.
With the advent and spread of such communities, today’s young generation is not only
growing up as a net generation but additionally with open source software and open
content. This generation is therefore used to two fundamentals, which are also
fundamentals of the so-called web 2.0: Openness and Freeness.
1. Web 2.0 services are open, which means that in general there should be no
access restrictions to participate at a given environment; e.g. due to prior
education, age, culture, or professional position.

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2. Web 2.0 services are predominantly free; both in terms of the freeness of
accessing content and communities (free in monetary terms), but also freeness in
terms of freedom to express oneself and to be creativeii.
The experience of these two fundamentals constitutes what we would like to call the
‘net generation’. This generation, which is about to enter higher education, not only
grew up with ICT, but is also used to taking on an active role, to create and design
resources, and to engage at the web with peers from all over the globe.
The crucial questions with regard to HE are: What would be the demands of this
generation once entering HE and how will HE respond to those demands? Would this
generation accept traditional HE structures and principles; being well aware about the
alternative ways the web provides?
Our hypothesis is that students with the experience of freedom and openness will not
easily accept traditional HE, but tend to take the right as granted to change or modify
software, content, structures and hierarchies. In the following sections we examine in
more detail how the net generation challenges HE and how HE may respond to the
needs and aspirations of the net generation.

2. Challenges to Higher Education in a virtual world


There are several challenges for HE if acting in a virtual world; and some of them have
their origin in the fact that traditional laws are not any longer valid in an online world.
The first of those challenges relates to knowledge sharing and creation. The knowledge
is power rule, for example, only applies if knowledge is being shared with others, but
not by ‘hoarding knowledge’ as this means to remain invisible; with the knowledge
being provided by someone elseiii. As a consequence ‘selling knowledge’ is equally
difficult in the virtual world, as someone else might be willing to provide the same
knowledge for free.
The second challenge concerns “knowledge impairment”. In times when knowledge is
becoming obsolete faster and faster, a 4 years’ university student enrolled for a
technical degree might face that half of what has been learned during the first year will
be out of date by the third year of study. iv Traditional educational settings frequently
struggle to update their courses within these shorter and shorter cycles or to develop
new ones to meet current demands, with lessons still being largely given like 100 years
agov. The web, however, can provide students with up to date content and up to date
community-based support.
The third challenge of the net generation to HE concerns the attribution of roles of
teachers and learners. In Internet-based teaching and learning environments, symbiotic
interactions between learners and between learners and content may produce sustainable
learning processes. Sustainability, in this context, means that even novice participants
will, over time, graduate to experts.
One certainly could argue that HE can not be benchmarked with informal learning
environments the web provides. After all, HE is a full service provider and offers
recognized degrees that can not be compared to self-studying at the web. However, the
case of computer science education research has shownvi that 39% of surveyed IT
companies expressed that there is no difference between formal qualification and

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practical experience in FLOSS, with a further 17% claiming that formal qualification is
even worse.
This indicates that HE is well advised to keep an eye on the learning opportunities the
web provides, especially in contexts where practical experience is considered equally or
even more important than “theoretical” education at school or university.
Understanding web success cases like e.g. FLOSS is therefore crucial for HE to adapt
itself to the new realities. The FLOSS case, but also the web at large, provide an insight
on how HE might benefit from going a step beyond the current Open Educational
Resource (OER) move towards Open Participatory Learning Ecosystems (OPLE) vii and
an educational commonsviii.

3. Going Beyond OER: Towards Open Participatory Learning Ecosystems


The OER movement has emerged as what might be seen as an alternative to traditional
educational environments, aiming at opening the door to the next generation of HE pro-
vision. However, the examination of FLOSS as an example of a well functioning open
participatory learning ecosystem (OPLE) reveals that by now the OER movement did
not tap the full benefits provided by Web 2.0, which are already widely used by the ‘net
generation’.
The current OER move still largely follows the traditional expert production model ix
(analogue to the proprietary software development model) resulting in the fact that con-
tent and learning activities / processes (discourse) are still disconnected. The OER side
today is largely characterized by creating static content repositories that lack vivid and
active learning communities, meanwhile on the other hand one can find a myriad of non
HE and non OER labelled vivid and active informal learning ecosystems (e.g. Jishka,
Yahoo answers or Physicsforumx) with a diverse range of dynamic and / or user gener-
ated content and considerable degree of collaboration.

So what can we learn from the FLOSS case?


The FLOSS case provides us with insights in how to make use of ICT to provide stu-
dents and free learners outside formal education with learning opportunities that are em-
bedded in global virtual OPLE. Free, open, transparent, inclusive and sustainable are
just five of the keywords that relate to those approaches and that might be taken forward
to educational settings. There are many advantages for learners in FLOSS communities,
such as access to a variety of resources, learning by doing, community support and en-
gagement, though there are admittedly limitations and critical aspects to be considered
as for example earlier outlined by Philipp Schmidtxi.
Probably the most relevant characteristics of FLOSS communities that could help to im-
prove (higher) education and to meet the net generation’s expectations are the commu-
nity production model, the community support model, and the underlying business mod-
els to assure sustainability.
The FLOSS-type of learning is not radically new and unrelated to the solid pedagogic
framework that has been established for new types of learning, as a response to the
shortcomings of traditional educational systems. FLOSS appears NOT as a contradic-

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tion to these pedagogies but in many respects as a best practice case of the implementa-
tion of their principles and goals.
Traditional educational settings would equally benefit from access to a large pool of up
to date learning materials / content, the community support system and a bridge
between the former and the latter; allowing future learners to follow learning processes
of others and to re-use, build upon and improve prior works.
However, there is still the need for further research and piloting to better understand the
applicability of such approaches to formal educational settings, or to establish open par-
ticipatory learning ecosystems that go beyond the current open educational resource
movement and that are self-sustainable.
Fortunately, there are many pioneering educators on the web that help us paving the
way towards the future of education, like e.g. the authors’ current NetGeners.Net pilot
or the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Course by Stephen Downes and
George Siemens – to just name two of the various attempts.

About the authors


Andreas Meiszner is the project manager of the EU funded
FLOSSCom project (www.flosscom.net) on behalf of the coordinator
Sociedade Portuguesa de Inovação and a research fellow at the British
Open University. Besides the world of academic research Andreas
also worked in various business sectors and functions during the past
14 years, having obtained three higher education degrees in
management from universities in France, Germany and The
Netherlands.
Rüdiger Glott is a social scientist and member of the Collaborative
Creativity Group (http://ccg.merit.unu.edu/) at UNU-MERIT, a
research institute of the University of Maastricht (NL) and the United
Nations University, where he holds a position as researcher. He
carried out a number of studies on the FLOSS community, such as the
European FLOSS Developer Survey in 2001 or the FLOSSPOLS
Developer Survey in 2005. He also works on issues of skills
attainment, eLearning, and eGovernment.
Sulayaman K. Sowe (PhD) is a research fellow at the department of
informatics, Aristotle University, Greece. He works in a number of
EU funded projects including FLOSSCom. His research interests
include Free/ Open Source Software Development, Knowledge
Management, Information Systems Evaluation, Social &
Collaborative Networks. He has published at various scientific
journals, conferences, international workshops, and is a co-editor of
the book "Emerging Free and Open Source Software Practices”. He is
a member of a number of international committees and editorial
review boards, including the IGI Global Editorial Advisory Review
Board, the International Journal of Open Source Software & Processes
(IJOSSP).

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This article represents some of the results of the FLSSCom project, which has been
funded with support from the European Commission. The article reflects the views of
the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be
made of the information contained therein. Further reports, papers, presentations,
references and literature to the subject can be found at http://www.flosscom.net.

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i
Glott, R.; Meiszner, A. & Sowe, S. K. (2007) “Analysis of the Informal Learning Environment of FLOSS
Communities”, FLOSSCom Project. 2007. Available at
http://opensource.mit.edu/papers/FLOSSCom_WP2_Phase_1_Report_v070709_1.pdf
ii
Slot, M. F., Valerie (2007). "Users In The 'Golden' Age Of The Information Society", OBS-Observatorio, Special
Issue 'Users as Innovators' Vol. 1(No. 3): 201-224.
http://obs.obercom.pt/index.php/obs/article/viewPDFInterstitial/153/110
iii
Wayner, P. (2000) Free for All - how Linux and the free software movement undercut the hightech titans, 1st ed.,
New York, NY: HarperBusiness.
iv
Following Richard P. Adler, Minds on Fire: Enhancing India's Knowledge Workforce (Gurgaon, India: Aspen
Institute India, 2007), http://www.aspeninstitute.org/atf/cf/
%7BDEB6F227-659B-4EC8-8F84-8DF23CA704F5%7D/ICT07IndiaMindsonFirefinal.pdf
v
Sowe, S. K. and Stamelos, I. (2008a) “Involving Software Engineering Students in Open Source Software Projects:
Experiences from a Pilot Study”, Journal of Information Systems Education (JISE), Vol. 18 (4), pp:425-435.
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa4041/is_200712/ai_n25419258
vi
Ghosh, R. & R. Glott (2005) “FLOSSPOLS Skill Survey Report”, www.flosspols.org
vii
The term open participatory learning ecosystem was coined by Brown & Adler. See also: Brown J. S. & Adler R. P.
(2008). "Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0." EDUCAUSE Review Vol. 43(no. 1): 16–
32. http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0811.pdf
viii
Hepburn, G. (2004) “Seeking an educational commons: The promise of open source development models”, First
Monday, Volume 9 (Number 8). http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_8/hepburn
ix
Meiszner, A, Glott, R. & Sowe, S. K. (2008b) “Free / Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) Communities as an
Example of successful Open Participatory Learning Ecosystems”, UPGRADE, The European Journal for the
Informatics Professional, Vol. IX, issue no. 3 (June 2008): "Next Generation Technology-Enhanced Learning" (to be
published) http://flosscom.net/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_details&gid=188&Itemid=116
x
Jishka is a forum that assists thousands of children and teenagers with schoolwork everyday by publishing educational
content and providing instant-help services for students who need urgent help (http://www.jiskha.com) / Yahoo answers
allows finding and sharing information where individuals can ask questions on any topic and get answers from real
people (http://answers.yahoo.com). / PhysicsForums is an informal collaboration space where people can chat about
maths, physics and science. The forum went online in 2003 and had 77.203 members that started 154.509 threads and
received 1.341.084 answers by November 2007. http://www.physicsforums.com. Those are only three randomly picked
up examples out of myriads to be found at the web.
xi
Schmidt, J. Philipp (2007) “Open Educational Resources as a higher education strategy for openness and social
development” GUNI – Global University Network for Innovation, Newsletter issue September 13, 2007.
http://www.guni-rmies.net/news/detail.php?id=1103